16 September 2014

Totally rewriting art history!! Dura Europos

Everyone knows that historical learning increases incrementally!

So imagine an accidental discovery of documents or art objects that utterly change the way we understand a piece of history. One example will show what I mean. Florence Nightingale arrived in Scutari in November 1854 with her nurses. Her team found that poor care for wounded soldiers was being delivered by over-worked staff. Medicine was limited, hygiene was poor, infect­ions raced through the wards and cooking facilities were inadequate. It was believed by everyone on the planet that The Lady With the Lamp and her saintly team reduced the wounded soldiers’ death rate from 42% to 2%. She was close to sainthood.

But as later evidence emerged, death rates in her hospital were actually the highest of all regional hosp­itals. Ten times more soldiers died from infect­ious diseases like cholera than from being blown up by enemy guns. Nightingale clearly did not recognise hygiene as the predominant cause of death in Crimea. Did scholars rewrite their PhD theses to account for the new information? Were books taken back to publishing houses for re-editing or pulping?

Now examine the discovery of Dura Europos in Syria. This fortified city along the Euphrates River was discovered by young British soldiers digging trenches into the sand after WW1. Fortunately they told their senior officers of their find and proper archaeological excavations began in 1928. A ancient city of many peoples and religions emerged. Apart from the fine panorama of the walls form­ing the western edge of the city, the ar­ch­ae­ol­ogists found Greek and Roman temples, and a very early Christian church. The church murals were painted in 232-56 AD, decades before Emperor Constant­ine (reigned 306–337) recognised Christianity.

It was the discovery of the synagogue, tucked away in a pri­v­ate house against the west wall close to the church, that made art historians' hearts beat faster. The walls of the 3rd century synagogue were brightly painted with all the famous scenes in the Old Testament!! 

Western wall of the Dura Europos synagogue in Syria
Completed by 244 AD
Note the alcove where the scrolls of the law were held.

The importance of the murals on the walls of Dura Eur­o­pos synag­ogue did not lay in their brilliant techniques or icon­ography, al­though both of those things have become important. No. The key thing was that until Dura Europos was uncover­ed in 1920, it had always been assumed that monu­men­tal Jewish art was forbidden. Totally!! Even when Jewish art did begin to emerge in Spain and the Rhinelands in the 14th and C15th, the images were small, restricted in subject matter and semi-hidden. Sculpture in the round would have been unthinkable.

Each of the four walls of the synagogue room in Dura was covered with floor-to-ceiling pain­t­ings of Old Testament scenes. How was it preserved so remark­ably? It was the Persians who dest­roy­ed the city of Dura Europos and its new synagogue in 256 AD. The desert and mud closed over the city and it literally disappeared underground for more than 1,600 years. Unintentionally the destruction of the city preserved the beaut­iful wall paint­ings for posterity, by protecting them from rain and sun. 

The presence of Jewish th­em­es in the wall paint­ings and the Torah shrine identified the building as a synagogue, with benches that could seat 65 men. But what sort of Jewish community would decorate its place of worship in this manner? And what can it tell us about the community's theol­og­ical doctrine, its self-view and its relations with Dura’s non-Jewish popul­ation?

The Macedonians built Dura as a frontier town to con­trol the river trade. Silks, spices and precious stones were brought from the east and transferred onto camels for the desert leg of the journey, via Palmyra, to the Mediterranean. Dura clearly had a steady stream of merchants, soldiers and officials, as well as civilians on their travels. Because of its geography and population, then, Dura enjoyed an urban and religiously complex culture. The citizens of Dura mixed freely together, and possibly learned from each other.

An Aramaic inscription at Dura Europos helped date the synagogue to 244 AD, which may go some way towards explaining the art. It was during the C3rd that Christians, many of them breakaway Jews, were buil­d­ing their own highly decorated churches. Only in Dura, it would seem, the church and syn­ag­ogue were decorated at the same time.

The synagogue consisted of a forecourt and prayer space meas­uring 14 x 9m. The Torah shrine, in the western wall facing Jeru­s­al­em, was critic­al. In a pagan temple, the space occupied by the Torah shrine would have contained the cult statue of a god. In a later Christian church, it would have contained the baptismal font. In Dura-Europos synagogue, the niche became the reposit­ory of the Law, the most rev­ered space in any synagogue. Immed­iately ab­ove the conch on the western wall there was a temple facade, with a 7-branch candelabra and the two symbols of the Feast of Tabern­acles. Thus the holy objects were re­p­res­en­ted here as they had been in the Te­m­ple of Jerusalem, destroyed by the Romans c200 years prev­ious­ly.

The Syrians transported the synagogue, its panels and gorgeous roof of baked-brick tiles across the desert 480 ks away to Damascus. There it became the centrepiece of the country’s national museum built in 1934. The Dura Europos church was dismantled and re-constructed in Yale in the early 1930s.


After WW2, archaeological expeditions to Turkey’s Sardis synagogue unearthed another impressive synagogue from antiquity ( late 3rd century) , showing mosaic floor art, elegant columns and Greek and Hebrew inscriptions. The sculpture on each end of the bimah table, used for reading the Torah scroll, featured Roman imperial imag­ery. Like Dura Europos, Sardis seemed to be a great example of ad­ap­tation of secular art forms for Jewish purposes.

Sardis synagogue, Turkey
late 3rd century
original wall to wall mosaic floor art
Was the altar sculpture taken from another site?

When Dura Europos was first discovered, art historians had to rethink their certainty that Jewish art had been totally forbidden. By the time Sardis was discovered, there were few shocks left. Historians noted that even if the Sardis sculpture had been taken from an older, pagan building and had been re-purposed, it was still proudly used on the second most important piece of religious furniture in the synagogue - the reading desk for the Torah scrolls.

Sardis scholars concluded that the synagogue in Diaspora communities emphasised and decorated the inside space in its ar­c­hitect­ure. In almost all synag­ogues, they said, the interior dec­or­ations were modelled the local, non-Jewish art form, in style if not in function or religious content. What an about-face change in art historical thinking!

Many thanks to
1] Gabrielle Sed Rajna for Ancient Jewish Art, Chartwell Books, 1985 and
2] Kurt Weitzmann and Herbert Kessler for Fres­coes of the Dura Synagogue and Christian Art, Dumbarton Oaks Studies, 1990.


Andrew said...

Perhaps in my ignorance, I have always thought of Jewish artwork as small and restrained. It seems it was not always.

I have heard about the not quite so clever Florence Nightingale. Mother Theresa needs such investigation

Joe said...

I fear the National Museum in Damascus was bombed and looted. I wonder if the Dura Europos remains survived.

Hels said...


I am with you totally about Mother Theresa. It is problematic that writers (like Christopher Hitchens) who try to go back to original source material are either blocked or vilified.

Hels said...


It is very difficult to find out exactly what damage was done to the Damascus National Museum. But NB the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology claimed that 12 of Syria's 36 national museums were plundered! Presumably because there is a thriving and growing market for stolen antiquities around the world.

How bitterly ironic would it be if the Dura Europos treasures were protected for 1800 years below the desert sands only to be damaged after 70 years in a great museum.

Deb said...

The Dura Europos synagogue community seemed small. So they may have modelled their artistic ideas on much bigger communities. Have you seen any of the ancient synagogues in the Galilee?

Hels said...


I half agree with you. The tile-based art, both figurative and geometric, in Hammat Tiberias and Beit Alfa synagogues is utterly stunning. The art historians must have gone nuts when the two sites were excavated for the first time in the 1920s.

But which came first? Dura Europos is dated about 244 AD, Hammat Tiberias 285-335 AD and Beit Alfa 515-527 AD. If there was a model, it was elsewhere.

Dr. F said...


As you say the find at Dura was made almost a hundred years ago. Nevertheless, both scholars and ordinary folk still find it difficult to assimilate the evidence because of some preconceived notions about Jews and art.

Could it be that it was very difficult to distinguish the Jewish and Christian communities in the first three centuries? Is Dura and the other sites you mention the only sites remaining of Jewish in those centuries? If so, perhaps Jews only stopped using monumental art after the split widened between Jews and Christians.

Permit to also say that it was inappropriate for someone to bring Mother Teresa into this discussion. Moreover, you should not slander someone based only on the evidence of the virulently anti-Catholic Hitchens.


Hels said...

Dr F

agreed. Although art historians had rarely stated it before finding Dura Europos, I think many people did indeed begin to think it was difficult to distinguish the Jewish and early Christian communities.

If the citizens of Dura mixed freely together and learned from each other, there might have been some shared theology, liturgy and even some shared membership. So what could be more natural than being influenced by other citizens' architecture and decorative arts?

I mentioned Sardis, Hammat Tiberias and Beit Alfa because they are the only sites I know personally. For a long list of purpose-built synagogues in northern Israel from C3rd onwards, see

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I love these posts that are as much about historiography as they are about history. Ideas about history are just models that cover the known facts, and these ideas are subject to revision when new evidence emerges. This is especially true is fields like archeology where knowledge is fragmentary and new finds are made all the time.

Hels said...


It is interesting that scholars were prepared to see the historiography of Jewish art as, not static or slowly changing, but radically changing.

I will readily admit that the new sources and new techniques came about totally accidentally (eg British soldiers falling into a sand pit in the Syrian desert). But lots of new knowledge arrives totally by accident, at least in the first place.

Dina said...

Such interesting points you make.
May there be many more great discoveries, accidental and otherwise.
Thanks for this great picture of the Dura Europos synagogue.

Hels said...


YES! The clever scholar finds something new, often accidentally; recognises he/she doesn't understand it; spends time and effort rethinking broadly; then writes it up in journals and conferences for other scholars to examine.

There is a risk that other scholars will respond with ridicule, but new learning will not be stopped.

Imagine if the shepherds had burned the Dead Sea Scrolls to brew their tea!

Yahoo News said...

The Islamic State militants seek to purge society of everything that does not conform with their strict, puritanical version of Islam. That means destroying not only relics seen as pagan but even some Islamic sites — Sunni Muslim shrines they see as idolatrous, as well as mosques used by Shiites, a branch of Islam they consider heretical.

For example, the 2,300-year-old city of Dura Europos is being pillaged. The site is in a cliff overlooking the Euphrates near the Iraq border in an area under the Islamic State group’s control, and satellite imagery taken in April show it pockmarked with holes from illegal digs by antiquity-seekers.

Images showed hundreds of people excavating on some days from dawn to nightfall, with gunmen and gangs involved. Dealers are at the site and when they discover an artefact, the sale takes place immediately. They are destroying entire pages of Syrian history.

The United Nations' cultural agency UNESCO adopted an emergency plan to safeguard Iraq's cultural heritage.

Hels said...

Thank you. I don't know whether I am angrier at ISIS for destroying ancient sites that they consider pre-Islamic and idolatrous, or at fortune hunters who destroy ancient sites to make a profit. In either case, I hope all the Dura art and architecture was totally documented, before the destruction.

Mandy Southgate said...

What an interesting post. I have even noticed in Britain how our understanding of sites changes over the years based on new techniques or finds. One day we might even find out for sure where on Watling Street the battle of Watling Street actually took place. Of course, I'm referring to archaeology and history, not art, but I see the similarities in how our thinking evolves.

Hels said...


that is so true. Learning can increase incrementally or in gigantic leaps in all fields. Imagine poor old Marie Curie with her radium. She continued to face great opposition from male scientists in France, and she never received significant financial benefits from her work. Other scholars can feel VERY threatened!